25 de agosto de 2019
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Property in Florida Panhandle provides home for victims of Hurricane Michael

By Alvaro Blanco

Youngstown (USA), Jun 7 (efe-epa).- Eight months after Hurricane Michael battered the Florida Panhandle, Shelly and Sam Summers' backyard is providing a space for 26 people who lost everything.

The couple has welcomed those displaced individuals to their property in Youngstown, located 27 kilometers (17 miles) northeast of Panama City Beach, one of the hardest-hit towns in Florida's Bay County.

Eight months later, with political squabbles in Washington having long prevented millions of dollars in federal aid from reaching those displaced by the natural disaster, neighborly solidarity has picked up the slack.

After the hurricane, the Summers removed numerous felled trees from their property to make space for 13 tents that serve as shelter for local residents left homeless by the powerful storm.

The most recent person to find refuge in the backyard is Joyce Buschman, a 54-year-old woman who told EFE she had been bouncing around from one place to another since the hurricane struck.

"Since I've been here, which it's a few days, it's the safest that I have felt in a long time," she said. "I feel serenity within myself that I haven't felt in a long time."

The guests at the Summers' property also include six children, one of whom is just three months old.

They are treated there to surprising luxuries such as air conditioning and a small swimming pool and also have access to the house's kitchen, where they can prepare their meals.

Machines move earth and dig trenches outside the home owned by the Summers, who plan to expand the tent community and even have a waiting list containing the names of future guests.

"At the end of the day, we all have each other," said Shelley Summers." "We are just a really big family."

$25 BILLION IN LOSSES

Michael wreaked havoc on northwestern Florida after making landfall on Oct. 10, 2018.

Sixteen people died and the estimated property damage was $25 billion in the United States, most of it in Florida although the hurricane also caused destruction in Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

According to the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), more than 23 million cubic meters (810 million cubic feet) of debris have been removed since the passage of the hurricane, or 10 times the amount generated in 2017 by Hurricane Irma, which carved a south-to-north path through the entire Florida peninsula.

Michael took a heavy economic toll on Bay County, where the cities of Mexico Beach and Panama City Beach are located.

Numerous businesses were forced to close, hundreds of residents left the area and public coffers have suffered from a decline in property tax revenue.

County Manager Bob Majka told EFE that sizable bills will need to be paid to continue the work of infrastructure repair and debris removal.

Despite the objection of some Republicans, the US Congress recently approved a $19.1 billion aid package for areas devastated by natural disasters and President Donald Trump signed the bill into law on Thursday.

Trump had earlier visited Panama City Beach in mid-May and announced a $448 million disaster relief package for Florida communities affected by Michael.

"STAY STRONG, MEXICO BEACH"

Welcome! Share the beauty we enjoy every day. So reads the sign welcoming visitors to Mexico Beach.

But beauty now is nowhere to be found amid the debris-filled mess in that tourist town, where some plastic containers serve as a platform for another sign that says, "Stay Strong, Mexico Beach."

That small beach community was particularly devastated by Hurricane Michael, the third-most intense hurricane to make landfall in the continental US.

Many houses were reduced to their foundations, with just a hint of what they once contained, whether a few beach chairs or a doormat without a door.

Earth-moving machines lift sand near the ocean shore, and opportunists look for ways to make money.

"Hurricane claims?" one marketing sign reads. "We buy lots and damaged homes," says another.

A constant stream of trucks carrying debris or construction material for hundreds of workers can be seen in the town, with the construction industry serving as a main source of economic sustenance for a community that once relied on tourism.

"THE STORM IS STILL GOING ON"

Just 12 miles from Mexico Beach lies the town of Port St. Joe, where pastor Geoffrey Lentz was forced to evacuate due to the proximity of his church - and rectory - to the ocean.

When he returned, there was almost nothing left of his home and the First United Methodist Church of Port St. Joe was devastated - and remains so to this day.

"Eight months after hurricane Michael and in many ways it feels like the storm is still going on, the effects of it, the damage is still being felt," the pastor told EFE.

The community lost between 20 percent and 30 percent of its 400-member congregation, since many people had to move after their homes were destroyed.

"There are still homes and businesses that had to be torn down and we are just barely getting to the point where we are rebuilding," Lentz said.

"So it's still a very difficult time in our community".

Lentz said he wished the response had been similar to what occurred in Paris after a major fire at the Notre-Dame Cathedral in April, when millions of euros were raised in a matter of hours to restore the badly damaged building.

His small church, built in 1950, is the "Notre Dame of Port St. Joe" and also needs funds for reconstruction, Lentz said, adding that the members of his congregation had been held hostage in recent months due to gridlock in Washington.

abm-ja/mc

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